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The Harris Effect

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By choosing Kamala Harris, of Indian-Jamaican parentage, as his running mate for his presidential bid, Joe Biden has galvanised the race for the White House in the November elections. As the first Black-Asian American candidate at this level, her style and poise bring excitement and energy to the campaign

By Kenneth Tiven in Washington

After nearly four years of chaotic leadership from President Donald Trump the choice of Senator Kamala Harris of California as Joe Biden’s vice-president, sharpens the differences for voters. Do they choose the embattled Trump and his vice-president, the sanctimonious Mike Pence? Or is the alternative Biden, at age 77, positioned as a decent, honest, steady leader with eight years’ experience at former President Barack Obama’s shoulder.

Senator Harris brings energy and a verbal sharpness to the Democratic ticket. Her legal background, management and interrogation skills have been obvious in questioning Republicans testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Former Attorney General Jeff Session says he was scared of her, while current Attorney General Bill Barr was reduced to mumbling evasions about presidential interference in his decisions. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh didn’t fare well in this exchange asking him about abortion and reproductive rights:

Harris: “Can you think of any laws that give government the power to make decisions about the male body?

Kavanaugh froze for several seconds before responding: “I’m happy to answer a more specific question.”

Male versus female,” Harris replied.

After a back and forth, Kavanaugh told Harris: “I’m not thinking of any right now, senator.” After her selection, President Trump repeated his feeling she is “nasty” for asking Kavanaugh those questions. (Nasty is Trump’s code word for women with whom he disagrees.) Abortion rights are a critical issue in America and how a Supreme Court judge thinks is fair game for these sorts of questions.

Kamala Devi Harris is the daughter of an Indian medical researcher and a Jamaican economist, both of whom came to Berkeley, California, for graduate education. Their civic activism was visible and as a non-white student in the early years of school desegregation their daughter excelled. Now 56, her resume reads as sequential accomplishments, often as the “first.” She graduated from the historically Black Howard University in Washington, DC, then returned to the west coast, attending the University of California’s Hastings College of Law. 

She worked in the San Francisco District Attorney’s office in the 1990s and then campaigned and was elected the district attorney for the city of San Francisco. Then, she became the state Attorney General, followed by winning California’s other US senate seat in 2016. Seeking the presidential nomination turned out much more difficult than imagined in the fractious Democratic primary season of moderates arguing with progressives in what they like to call “The Big Tent” political party.

She was tough on Biden’s past record in debate, but then her campaign fizzled. She dithered about supporting Sanders’s vision of Medicare for All. She claimed she had fought as California’s attorney general against predatory financial institutions, but that was Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s turf. Discussing criminal justice reform brought opposition from some progressives who claimed she favoured policing and prisons.

In a chaotic race Harris generated little money and dropped out nearly two months before the first primary votes. Concurrently, Biden stumbled. In March as the impact of the pandemic was becoming obvious, the idea of a Biden-Harris team was dimming. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren climbed, then fell back and enthusiasm for Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar came and went like a brief summer rain shower.

Only in June when longtime Congressman James Clyburn endorsed Biden’s efforts in South Carolina did the former vice-president suddenly gain momentum propelled by Black voter turnout.

With Biden as the probable nominee many lobbied for the vice-presidential slot. Harris’s record in political and criminal issues has zigged and zagged demonstrating someone who does not take a dogmatic philosophical position to cover all issues. This both helps and hurts politicians. Harris told her supporters not to lobby to try to influence Biden’s pick. “He knows who I am,” one of her supporters, California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, recalled Harris saying. “I don’t want to put pressure on him. He’ll make the right call.”

Joe Biden, who grew up in a working class family, has evolved his political thinking as the Democratic Party has grown more diverse. Sen. Harris’s views of criminal justice and fairness in America have evolved pushed along by police behaviour that has created the Black Lives Movement. As the first Black-Asian American candidate at this level her style and poise bring excitement and energy to the campaign.

Contrarily her credentials incite the racist and misogynist elements in America that seem to worship Trump’s approach to governing. Within hours of her announcement Trump emailed a fund-raising letter outlining the GOP position: “It’s going to be President Trump and Vice President Pence on the ballot against two of our Nation’s most RADICAL Democrats: Sleepy Joe Biden and Phony Kamala Harris. Both of them are corrupt career politicians who LOVE anarchy and HATE America. … It’s REAL Americans vs. SOCIALISTS.”

Late last month, Barack Obama appeared at Martin Luther King’s old pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church to eulogise the Democratic Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis. The former president did not disappoint, weaving the language of the civil rights movement with that of the Democratic Party. It was Obama at his rhetorical best, saying Lewis’s life had “vindicated the faith in our founding, redeemed that faith; that most American of ideas; that idea that any of us ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation, and come together, and challenge the status quo, and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love.”

Without the economy to brag about, with a death toll from the coronavirus pandemic that leads the world, with staggering unemployment as well, Republicans are recycling the post-World War II campaign language from the 1950s, while hoping that social media and any outside help secretly provided can overcome what appears now to be a serious voter deficit. Polls generally have Biden 10 points ahead.

Harris’s upbringing in middle-class Berkeley, California’s academic community, as the child of two immigrants provided a wide range of experiences. Even as her mother encouraged them to connect with their Indian roots, she has written that her mother was also aware of how she and her sister would be perceived in America. “My mother understood  very well she was raising two Black daughters,” she wrote in her autobiography. “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as Black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident Black women.”

Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a Tamil, died of colon cancer in 2009. Her parents had divorced when she was seven years old and her dad is still alive. She told The New York Times that learning of her mother’s diagnosis was one of the worst days of her life. “She got sick before the Affordable Care Act became law, back when it was still legal for health insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. I remember thanking God she had Medicare. As I continue the battle for a better healthcare system, I do so in her name.”

She’s a good friend of Mindy Kaling Chokalimgam, an actress of Indian (Tamil) origin, popular in America. She once cooked dosas with her on TV as they reminisced about their Indian up­bringing. Honestly, nothing about 2020 is normal anywhere in the world where the US, Brazil and India are having the greatest difficulty in eradicating the virus problem. Certainly in both America and Brazil, amateur political leadership has been a significant problem. At the start of 2020, it appeared the De­mocrats had an uphill battle to win the White House. Today it appears as if President Trump has a mountain to climb to retain a job he seems not to enjoy. Satirists are having a field day regarding Pence versus Harris in a debate in so far as Pence refuses to be alone with a woman other than his wife.

Virtual political conventions take some of the pageantry out of the process but perhaps it will benefit Harris, who brings sharp edges and clarity to the campaign—in person or on any sized electronic device. Her legal career is long, but most of it served as a government lawyer, and later in more administrative roles within these legal departments. She does not have a record of high profile cases a private defense lawyer might have accumulated in a long career. Within the progressive circles of the Democratic Party there was a fear that her work as a prosecutor in San Francisco made her too soft on issues of police behaviour and the use of prison time as a deterrent. As a woman of colour in law enforcement, perhaps with her eye on higher office, Harris did have a real record of progressive reforms. Her career began before the spotlight on police killings of black men, so a caution on appearing too soft on crime.

After years as a city prosecutor, Harris was elected in December 2003, as the first woman District Attorney in San Francisco’s history, and the first African American woman in California to hold the office. She later ran for state attorney general in California and won. In 2009, she wrote a book, Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer. More recently, she wrote The Truths We Hold which received some mixed reviews. A reviewer for The Guardian newspaper called the book “serviceable” and “not so much a literary event as the book tour as election campaign.”

California’s largest legal newspaper, The Daily Journal, named Harris as one of the top 75 women litigators in California and then as one of the top 100 lawyers in the state.

Where to attack her is the Republican dilemma. Fox News and Trump like defining her as a radical leftist. “She’s going to help with the base, and that’s where it ends,” a Trump adviser predicted. “She’ll scare the shit out of suburban women. How great is this?” A differing view from the White House recognises that Harris is comparable to Obama, bringing star power and debate skill that will appeal to a changing America. One Republican source said, “The demographics favour the Democrats. Trump still thinks this is Ronald Reagan’s America, and it’s not. The other problem is a backlash in the #MeToo age if they attack her too personally.” On the other hand, the left wing of the Democratic Party argued that her career isn’t leftist enough. “I’m fully aware of that whole (cop) meme,” she said last year. In recent years, she’s consistently been on the side of reformers. An ambitious criminal justice plank in her presidential platform covered everything from marijuana legalisation to abolishing mandatory minimums to curbing police use of force. Amid the nationwide “Black Lives Matter” protests sparked by George Floyd’s killing, she and Sen Cory Booker took the lead on policing reform in the Senate. 

Harris was tough on Biden in the primary debates. That apparently became an upside for Biden, said an insider: “Joe wants someone who has been on the big stage under the bright lights who can gut someone like a fish, and Kamala more than proved she could do that. Now it’s Pence’s turn and she’s gonna cut him up.” 

—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels

Lead picture: Facebook­

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